Three ways to select policy issues to work on

6 December 2018
SERIES Supporting policymakers to use evidence 5 items

Consultants may have to conduct evidence studies on a range of policy issues but then have to provide capacity development services in only a few. If you find yourself in this predicament, how might you choose which issue to work on? Here’s a few suggestions…

Work by the ODI’s RAPID programme suggested the likelihood of evidence being taken up within specific sectors was shaped by the following four factors:

  1. the level of technical expertise required to participate in policy debates: “policy sectors require differing levels of technical expertise, which influences who can and cannot access and shape policy debates. As the need for specialised expertise grows in response to growing complexity in a particular sector (e.g. climate change), demand for knowledge from policymakers and the call for policy advice of ‘experts’ also increases.”
  2. the relative influence of economic interests in shaping policy dialogues: “although economic interests are present in almost any policy decision, in some policy areas (such as trade, social security or environment) economic actors are arguably more prominent. It is thus essential to acknowledge the asymmetry of power between research institutions and economic actors as well as the influence of economic interests in shaping research production and uptake. For example, although there is strong evidence about the limited effect trade liberalisation alone has on poverty reduction, the strong role of large private sector players in trade policy has made it difficult for pro-poor NGO actors to gain access to decision-making channels in many developing country contexts.”
  3. the level of contestation in the sector: “research is more likely to be applied to policy-making if there is a strong consensus about the need for policy change than if the area is highly contested. For example, research on reproductive health issues is often dismissed as the area is highly contested and value-driven, and moral arguments typically carry greater weight. In such cases, knowledge often becomes a source of political ammunition.”
  4. the extent to which policy discourses are internationalised: “demand for research evidence is also shaped by the level of internationalisation of sectoral issues. In the case of environmental protection, gender equality and HIV/AIDS, many domestic actors have enjoyed greater success in influencing policy once they began working with international players (such as international NGOs). Similarly, in the governance sector, international actors and discourses have been key drivers in human rights and anti-corruption initiatives, especially in post-conflict settings where these issues are often highly emotive.”

There are no ‘rules’ about relationship between these variables and the uptake of evidence, so contractors will need to undertake analysis to uncover if there is a relationship and what that means for their engagement with the issue in question.

Harry Jones, an ex-colleague of mine did some work with the Centre for Inclusive Growth, which involved scoping the knowledge to policy context in a number of issues and identifying which ones to engage with and what actions to take. Drawing on ODI’s Knowledge, Policy and Power framework, he explored factors that drove decision makers, then within those highlighted areas or specific reform/influencing objectives where there seemed a high chance of research playing a role. Crucially, he identified areas where a gap in knowledge, technical capacity and/or facilitated learning was an important constraint. So the logic went, that if the gap was filled, it would lead to progressive action being taken.

Enrique Mendizabal suggests another way of selecting an issue to engage with: by exploring the density of research or issue champions and the level of political interest.  He says that a space that draws significant public political interest may be described as one where a large number of people or well organised political interests/groups are affected and therefore play a significant role in shaping the policy process and its outcomes. Spaces with low political interest, in contrast, would be those where decisions are not highly contested either because they are not known by the general public or because they are of no direct relevance to them or political/interest groups.

In relation to the density of research and information Mendizabal suggests that a high density equates to where there is plenty of information available about a particular issue through a number of competing and complementary media (think tanks, newspapers, NGOs, government bodies), low density equates to where there is little information available or where there are few or not readily available sources of information. This sets up… yes you guessed it, a 2 x 2 matrix,

High density – Low political interest

Decisions are likely to be informed by research based arguments and this will be chosen and used using technical or academic criteria

High density – High political interest

Decisions are likely to be informed by research informed arguments but this will be chosen and used using political criteria

Low density – Low political interest

Decisions are likely to be made by individuals or small and closed policy or interest groups and these are likely to be informed by personal values or interests or by the little research that is available

Low density – High political interest

Decisions are likely to be informed by political considerations and based on electoral demands and the public’s values or interests: in other words: votes count

So, by exploring these factors, one option could be to work in an area where there is low political interest (relatively speaking) and high information density – as the argument goes that decisions are likely to be taken by a small group of people using fairly technical criteria (perhaps monetary policy fits this bill) – which might help to promote the instrumental use of research that a donor might desire.

Some ministries and agencies, such as Finance, Trade, the Central Bank and Public Works, often produce outputs and outcomes that are more quantifiable in economic terms and where indicators of progress are clear, decision-making is more rational and systems for storing and reusing information are better. This may suggest that policymakers could have incentives to adhere to established technical standards in a limited number of ministries and thus are more likely to draw on knowledge in the process.

Second, in general terms, there is often a perception that issues such as trade and fiscal policy that are viewed as technically more complicated create an incentive to bring in people with academic backgrounds and technical skills. This suggests that issues that seem less complicated, such as health and education, are unlikely to attract quite as much technical input and conversely enable a broader number of actors to comment and critique. A number of respondents suggested that the media and civil society were more likely to report on social issues such as health and education, perhaps because they could relate more to the issue. As they had been ill and been to a hospital, they felt they were better placed to have a say on how the health system should be designed; or, since they had been to school, they could comment on designing education policies (which may also indicate why legislators have increasingly been seen to draft legislation on these issues). However, a number of respondents reasoned that the quality of debate on such issues in the media tended to be very poor, reflecting a lack of understanding of what ‘good’ policies (on health and education, for instance) really are. This would suggest that almost all policy issues can be characterised as technically complicated and that levels of stakeholder engagement are driven mainly by perceptions rather than actual levels of complexity.